"You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything."
It was back in 2005 that those grimy nuggets of “locker room talk” bubbled out of Donald Trump’s puckered lips on the Access Hollywood bus. That same year, Neil Strauss published The Game, a how-to guide for wannabe ‘pick-up artists’ that would go on to sell 2.5 million copies. It recommended tactics like “negging”, insulting a woman to reduce her self-esteem, and “caveman-ing”, which it defined as “to directly and aggressively escalate physical contact”.
It seems clear that the culture The Game was a part of helped carry Trump to the Presidency 12 years later. We now live in a world where grotesque machismo is so commonplace that his chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly calls his White House rivals “cucks”. Bannon rose to prominence as chair of Breitbart News, which stoked the misogyny of Gamergate in 2014 and fuelled the rise of the Alt-Right. Many of its readers are the same young men who learned all they know about women from Reddit’s The Red Pill forum, which teaches that feminism is a lie and what women really want is to be dominated and manipulated by powerful men. Pick-up artist (PUA) philosophy has taken over the asylum.
So when I was invited to cover a three-day PUA ‘bootcamp’ run by a company called Love Systems, I was intrigued. If I wanted to understand what made these guys the way they are, this seemed like a good place to start. Even the name ‘Love Systems’ reinforced what I thought I knew about them: that these are young men who understand computer games better than they understand real life, and who think that if they can just figure out the right ‘system’ they can ‘level up’ and suddenly all their troubles with women will be over.
There was also a more prosaic question I wanted to answer. The Love Systems website told me that these three-day courses cost each guy $2,997 (about £2,400). What sort of guy has that kind of money to spend on dating advice? I thought us millennials were all supposed to be broke?
For all the money they’re making, Love Systems clearly feel that when it comes to venues there should be no expense spent. Imagine, if you will, the bleakest conference room you’ve ever been in. Put in Formica chairs and a white flip-pad. Now half the size. Then half it again and place it underneath a Premier Inn in Victoria. Welcome to bootcamp!
Our teacher in the systems of love was to be Dave Vox, a 29-year-old with a firm handshake and a ginger hipster beard. Introducing himself to the group, he described himself as a “shy, nerdy kid” who took this course himself in 2009 in order to get over his own anxiety around women.
Then there were Vox’s four paying customers, whose names I’ve changed for obvious reasons. None of them were from London. There was Ali, a 31-year-old American engineer who’d flown in from his job in Africa, and Leo, a tall, softly-spoken Frenchman who’d travelled from Paris. Then there were two guys from the Welsh valleys. Rhys, also 31, spent the entire first day with his coat fastened all the way to the top, as if physically demonstrating just how buttoned up he felt. Finally there was Lewis – a friendly 39-year-old built like a rugby player who explained to us that he has Aspergers, with all the problems of understanding social cues that go along with it. When I asked Vox later if this was a typical group, he said it was. “It’s not uncommon to get lots of engineers or computer programmers on these courses, something that requires that more logical, process-orientated problem-solving kind of mindset,” he explained. “When you excel at that you perhaps excel less in the emotional side of things.”
I’m not sure if there’s a subtle way to bring this up, so I’ll just say it: none of these guys were ugly. They’re just ordinary-looking blokes. They’re also not sleazy budding lotharios, with ponytails and Matrix shades and a lust for Victoria’s Secret models in their sinews. Mainly they just wanted to build up enough confidence to have a proper conversation. One of the first exercises Vox had them do was to make a list of what they feared would happen if they didn’t manage to overcome this anxiety. Beside me, I watched Lewis simply write down the words “sad” and “lonely”.
Vox explained that his philosophy had moved on from the days of The Game. He didn’t teach them any “negging” lines, or even any chat-up lines at all. Most of what he taught were things that the majority of us probably take for granted. At one point, he observed that calling back to a joke someone made earlier can be funny. Everyone dutifully scribbled this down in their exercise books.
Of course, there’s only so much about social interaction that you can learn in a basement full of awkward guys, so we all headed off for our first big night out at Cargo in Shoreditch. Inside the club, Vox’s role was essentially just pointing out women that the guys had to go and introduce themselves to. For Ali, Leo and Lewis this was enough, and by the end of the night Ali was even snogging someone. For Rhys though, it was all too much. From the moment we got to the club he looked like Garth in that scene in Wayne’s World where he’s left alone on set and he’s so petrified that the guy in the booth goes: “Did you ever see that scene in Scanners where the dude’s head blew up?”
Within half an hour, he was nowhere to be seen. He’d sent Vox a text: “Sorry Dave, had to bail. Just couldn’t do it. See you tomorrow.” You’ve got to be dealing with a serious and genuine case of social anxiety to bail on a night out you’ve spent several grand to go on. Vox replied: “We can use this. Write down all the thoughts that are going through your head and bring them tomorrow. We'll confront them head on.”
For me, the most telling moment of the night was nothing to do with the boot camp. While the guys were off doing their thing, I ended up chatting to a Sikh guy and his mate, a pink-haired lesbian. At one point another girl with pink hair came and stood near us, and she obviously caught the girl’s eye. She was too nervous to do anything about it, until her friend nudged her. “Go and ask her if she’s into girls,” he said. She hesitated, then strode off to do it. The guy turned to me and said: “Sometimes you just need a friend to encourage you. Then it doesn’t feel so bad if you get rejected.” I hadn’t told them anything about the bootcamp or why I was there, but he’d unknowingly performed just the sort of normal service for a mate that people in that very club were currently paying a stranger handsomely for.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the rise of pick-up artist courses has coincided with our increasingly atomised society. In 2015, a YouGov poll carried out by The Movember Foundation found an estimated two and a half million British men over the age of 18 don't have a close friend they would discuss a serious life problem with. That also suggests they don’t have someone to nudge them into going and chatting someone up.
The next day, back in the grim Premier Inn conference room, we picked over the night before. Vox asked Rhys why he bailed on the club. “I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible,” he said. “It just felt so awkward being there when the other boys were talking to girls.”
That night, on the next group outing to The Rooftop Gardens in Kensington, Rhys didn’t make it at all. “I’m going to recommend he seeks professional help,” Vox told me. “I don’t have any interest in continuing to take money from someone who clearly needs it.”
That last comment didn’t make any sense to me at the time – surely he’d already paid for the boot camp? – but the next day it started to become clear. Vox was giving advice on how to talk to women over text, and asked how many of the guys had bought a Love Systems e-book called ‘The Ultimate Guide To Phone And Text Game’. Three out of four guys raised their hands. I quickly googled it. It costs $97.
After the session had ended, I went for a pint with Lewis and asked him how he’d come to buy this extravagantly expensive pamphlet. It emerged he’d already done another boot camp five years ago.
“After the last one, I got a follow-up phone call,” he explained. “The guy was like: ‘How are you doing?’ and I went: ‘I’m really struggling, can you help?’ He said: ‘Actually we have a product that can help you here.’ That’s how I ended up buying it. I was hopeful and desperate. I needed to get this part of my life sorted. It was making my life miserable and I wanted to get a handle on it. I was grasping, and somebody was there saying: ‘Buy this, this will sort you out.’ The next week, I went: ‘I crashed and burned again.’ And he went: ‘Oh, well buy this booklet, and this one will help.’”
“Wait, so you were getting weekly phone calls at this point?” I ask.
“Yeah. By the third week, he was going: ‘Let’s see what else we’ve got’ and I was going: ‘Hang on, I’ve bought a few already that haven’t worked!’ When he rang me again I didn’t answer, I just stopped answering. It was all after-sales: buy this, buy this.”
“How much money do you think you’ve paid to Love Systems over the years?”
“First bootcamp was probably about $3,200. This one was about $3,000. I’ve bought maybe five or six hundred dollars’ worth of the e-books they sell. I’ve probably bought another $200 worth of audios off them. So that’s maybe $7,000.”
“How do you afford all this?”
“If you’ve got no social life, what do you spend your money on? That’s essentially it. If you don’t have a girlfriend, if you don’t really go out because your friends are introverts as well, because we all stick together, you don’t really spend that much money. I was naturally saving money because I lacked all the social side of things. My mates with girlfriends were always broke, but I wasn’t.”
The obvious question this raises is: has it been worth it? Surely Lewis must have seen some value in it if he’d come back again? He tells me his experiences have been mixed. While the first bootcamp didn’t help him at all, he was convinced to come back because he’d read online that Love Systems had changed their philosophy since the bad old days of fixed chat-up line routines, “negging” and “caveman-ing”. He’s a big fan of Vox’s teaching methods. “This bootcamp was the first time I’ve thought: ‘You know what, this is money well spent,’” he says.
The confidence that Lewis was clearly gaining from being steered through conversations by Vox had almost convinced me that – overpriced though it might be – Love Systems was generally doing him a service. That changed when I was invited for an extra day of bootcamp which Ali and Lewis had signed up for. This would take it out of the club. They called it ‘Day Game’.
Vox started by telling them both how women would be blown away by their confidence if they approached them on the street, because of how rarely this happens. This, obviously, is not true. Watching Lewis try to stop women walking through Trafalgar Square was excruciating. While he kept telling himself that his approaches lacked the requisite confidence, I thought it was more likely that women walking through Trafalgar Square just generally don’t want to be stopped and chatted up.
When I put this to Vox, he deflected the criticism onto other pick-up courses: “I agree, there’s certain pockets of London unfortunately where I guess if you’re an attractive girl it’s very likely that you’ll get approached by someone who’s doing this kind of stuff. There’s all sorts of different schools out there, with different coaches teaching different kinds of things. There are some, unfortunately, that I’ve seen that are teaching in a very bad way. They’re treating the street like a nightclub.”
For all Vox’s attempts to justify this, I get the impression that the real bottom line for Love Systems is their bottom line. If guys are willing to pay for lessons in this sort of stuff, they’re going to teach it. The truth is this industry is entirely unregulated. “Honestly,” says Vox, “any man and his dog can set up a website and purport to be a teacher.”
Vox, for his part, doesn’t call himself a ‘pick-up artist’ and says the purpose of his course is to humanise women, not to dehumanise them. “I’m not trying to pick up as many women as I can and get notches on my belt for some kind of validation or ego boost. I truly believe it’s about empowering guys,” he says. “There’s nothing anti-women being taught here. It’s all from a place of respect.”
He does, though, acknowledge that not every course could say that. “There’s been an explosion of one-man band instructors,” he says. “Maybe they’ve done a course themselves, and think: ‘I could do that.’ Misinformation is put out there because they don’t understand it, or because they’re teaching it in the wrong way. That creates a minefield for guys: ‘Who do I trust?’ ‘Who do I listen to?’”
That’s a big problem. There are a lot of sad and lonely guys out there, and they’re desperate for help. These are men who often have real problems with low self-esteem, anxiety and a lack of a support network. Rather than getting real help, they identify the one symptom which is most obvious to them – the fact they can’t get a girlfriend – and start throwing money at it. At that point, they might find themselves signing up to a Love Systems bootcamp, or they might end up on a course taught by a creep who wants to turn them into cavemen, or they may get drawn into the world of the Alt-Right. Preying on, and profiting from, their insecurity has become the real game.
All illustrations by Gary Ogden. Instagram: gogdenart